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Israeli troops leaving Gaza amid Hamas vow to rearm

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak announce a unilateral cease-fire at a news conference in Haifa on Jan. 17, 2009. (BPH Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak announce a unilateral cease-fire at a news conference in Haifa on Jan. 17, 2009. (BPH Images)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — As Hamas vowed to rearm despite international calls to stop arms smuggling into Gaza, Israeli officials said the withdrawal of their troops from the coastal strip would likely be completed before Barack Obama is sworn in as America’s new leader.

Israeli troops continued to leave Gaza on Monday, a day before Obama’s midday inauguration in Washington as the 44th president of the United States. The Israeli officials were quoted anonymously in reports on the timing of the withdrawal.

Obama was pleased by the cease-fire.

“We welcome this news,” said Brooke Anderson, the spokesman for the transition team. “President-elect Obama is committed to working to help achieve lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, and will have more to say on these issues after Jan. 20.”

Israel began a unilateral cease-fire at 2 a.m. Sunday, which was met several hours later with a Hamas announcement of its own seven-day cease-fire along with demands that Israel withdraw all of its troops from Gaza within a week.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in making the cease-fire announcement Saturday night, said the objectives of Operation Cast Lead "were fully achieved and more so." The three-week mission, which started with airstrikes, included two weeks of ground operations in Gaza.

Olmert told a gathering of European leaders Sunday in Jerusalem that Israel did not want to stay in Gaza.

"The State of Israel has no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip," he said. "We are interested in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip as quickly as possible the moment we are assured that the cease-fire is being respected and is stable, and that there is no threat to the security of southern Israel. Our intention is not to conquer or control Gaza. We do not wish to remain in Gaza. We intend to withdraw as soon as possible."

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who is serving as the rotating president of the European Union, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero were in Israel to show their support for the Israeli-declared cease-fire.

On Monday, the armed wing of Hamas said it would rearm despite calls to halt arms smuggling into Gaza.

"Do what you like, but the manufacturing of holy weapons is our goal," Abu Ubeida, spokesman for Hamas’ Izzadin Kassam military wing, said at a news conference in Gaza, Reuters reported.

"Bringing arms into Gaza is not smuggling," said Ubeida, his face covered with a checkered keffiyah. "The natural situation would be for all Arab and Muslim countries, along with the rest of the free world, to formally allow weapons into the Strip."

The spokesman went on to say, "Meanwhile, we believe it is our right to bring arms in any way we find fit."

At a hastily arranged conference called by Egypt Sunday in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, Arab and European leaders called for an end to Hamas weapons smuggling into Gaza. Britain, France, Germany and the United States offered to assist in the effort, though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has rejected any plan that would include an international monitoring force on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border.

The Hamas cease-fire announcement on Sunday afternoon came after at least 20 rockets launched from Gaza landed in Israel, wounding at least one Israeli in Ashdod.

Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader in exile in Damascus, made the announcement on Syrian television. It was not coordinated with Israel.

Meshaal said conditions included Israel pulling its troops out of Gaza within a week, ending its blockade on the strip and opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

in a speech shown Sunday on Hamas television, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh congratulated the Palestinian people on their victory, saying Israel’s Gaza operation was a failure. He called the Hamas decision to declare its own unilateral cease-fire "wise and responsible."

About six hours after Israel’s unilateral cease-fire went into effect Sunday, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza. The troops returned fire in a defensive measure.

Schools in the southern communities hit hardest by rockets remained closed Sunday and Monday, and residents were warned that there would likely be more rocket fire.

Some 170 trucks carrying food and medicine entered Gaza on Sunday. Humanitarian aid and fuel have been supplied to Gazans during Israel’s operation.

Israel opened a regional clinic at the Erez crossing Sunday to treat wounded Gaza civilians. The emergency treatment center is staffed by Magen David Adom in coordination with the Ministry of Health and coordinated by Minister of Welfare and Social Services Issac Herzog. The Gazans may then be brought to hospitals in Israel. Seven Gazan children requiring treatment for cancer were transferred Monday to Israeli hospitals. 

Israel’s National Security Cabinet voted Saturday night to approve the cease-fire. Seven ministers voted for the measure, two voted against and one abstained, according to reports.

The cease-fire declaration came on the 21st day of Operation Cast Lead.

In his statement to the public and the media at 11 p.m. Saturday, Olmert made it clear that the decision to halt Israel’s operations in Gaza was unilateral based on agreements sought with the international community.

"It must be remembered that Hamas is not part of the arrangements we came to," Olmert said. "These are agreements involving many countries, and a terrorist organization like Hamas is not and need not be a part of them."

The prime minister said he had received letters from Brown, Sarkozy, Berlusconi and Merkel pledging their assistance in ending arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

Olmert said that if rockets continue to fall on southern Israel, then Israel would be prepared to respond.

As he was speaking, Olmert noted a demonstration of hundreds of Israelis demanding that abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held in Gaza, be released as part of any cease-fire.

"The intensive efforts to secure Gilad’s release began long before the operation, continued during it and will continue after as well," Olmert said. "The Government of Israel is working on many levels to bring him home, and during the operation we carried out various actions to bring us closer to this goal. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, I will not go into detail. I will only say that Gilad is at the top of our agenda, and we do not need any prodding or reminding in this matter."

Olmert praised Israel’ soldiers, their families and the residents of the South for their "fierce spirit." The prime minister also expressed his regret to Gaza civilians.

 "We do not hate you; we did not want and do not want to harm you," he said. "We wanted to defend our children, their parents, their families. We feel the pain of every Palestinian child and family member who fell victim to the cruel reality created by Hamas which transformed you into victims."

Approximately 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza operation, according to Palestinian reports. The damage to infrastructure has been estimated by Palestinian officials at $1.4 billion.

Israel’s announcement came a day after Israel and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding in which the United States and its NATO and regional allies pledged to assist Israel in efforts to prevent weapons smuggling by terrorists into Gaza.

The memorandum of understanding, signed Friday in Washington by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, enhances security cooperation.

Shortly after Olmert finished his announcement, a rocket from Gaza landed in Beersheba. No rockets were reported on Monday.
 

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